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A Vault of Color: Protecting the World’s Rarest Pigments

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In Cambridge, Massachusetts, you can find dragon’s blood, mummy, and a very rare ball of dried urine from cows that have been fed nothing but mango leaves (now considered a harmful process for the cows). These things sound bizarre and unusual, but they are actually three of around 2,500 pigments in the Forbes Pigment Collection at the Harvard Art Museums. Narayan Khandekar, Director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies and Senior Conservation Scientist, gives us a tour of the collections’ rainbow of pigments in this video from Great Big Story. Plus, from the Harvard Gazette:

Edward Forbes’ fascination with a painting’s colors and their binding medium — a close inspection of which could help to determine a work’s authenticity — fueled his desire to use science to understand and study great works of art. He is often cited as the father of the field of art conservation in the United States.

By the 1920s, Forbes had amassed containers of deep blues, rich purples, vibrant yellows, and myriad other colors from his travels to Europe and the Far East. Through the years, word of mouth helped the collection to grow as other art lovers and experts donated their own pigments. The museums’ collection, which is continually added to, now contains more than 2,500 samples and is renowned in the art community. For years, the pigments have helped art experts to research and authenticate paintings…

In addition to being their own artworks, Forbes’ pigments are a window to the past, shedding light on the working methods and preferred materials of renowned artists. Studying the pigments also reveals the effort it took, in the days before synthetic pigments, to get colors just right.

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Find out more about the sources of these brilliant pigments, including dragon’s blood — which is likely from Dracaena cinnabari, a species of rattan palm treeat HarvardArtMuseums.org and news.harvard.edu/gazette.

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